Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Slow Light of Atget
Today, almost passed, marks the birthday of the French photographer Eugene Atget.
The great irony of Atget's life is that he considered himself merely an artisan, recording, first "documents for artists" and then, almost exclusively, the streets buildings, parks, vendors, prostitutes and ragpickers of his beloved "Old Paris" which was passing away into memory with the advent of cars, cinema, and advertisements. When his neighbor, the American surrealist, Man Ray asked him if he could include some of his prints in an avante-garde journal, Atget demanded that his name not be mentioned.
Yet, as it appears to the legion of great artist/photographers that revered him, it was the very innocence and denial of his personal "specialness" that allows his photographic subjects to speak through him, as if through a dream.
Atget used an old bulky, 36 pound, large format wooden bellows camera that favored slow, extended exposures and gave his photos a twilit, somnambulist air. When Man Ray offered to secure a more advanced up-to-date camera Atget demurred, saying that this model would be too fast for the slower workings of his mind. Atget had likely gone through too many years, taking an early morning train out to the suburbs, or arriving at a scene somewhere in the sprawling center with his old mechanical companion, the two of them poised for that just-right ephemeral afternoon light.
Many of his favorite subjects were to be found on streets just around the corner from a bustling crowded avenue that would have registered as so many blurs. In fact an occasional blurred figure will appear, ghostlike, in front of one of his shop-front or stairway scenes, unexpectedly and unavoidably captured, like a prehistoric firefly in amber.
In his youth Atget had worked as a sailor and actor in a traveling theatrical troupe. It was in this group of repertory players that he met, in 1886, the woman who was to be his lifetime companion, Valentine Compagnon. When she died in 1926 Atget soon followed suit, passing away on August 4, 1927. Berenice Abbott, the young American photographer who was an assistant to Man Ray, befriended him in his last years and she took a photograph of him only two days before he died. He never lived to see this photo, nor did he live to see the acclaim his photos would gather due to the tireless archiving of his works by Abbott who was to become a photographer of renown. Her photographs of New York City in the 30's are works of reverence much like Atget's prints of Paris.